The Ghosts Betwixt (Preview Edition)

Caveat:  This was a prototype.  Keep that in mind when viewing the images.  Also, keep that in mind when reading this blurb in general.  I’m only going to relate the things I like about the game.  Sure, there were a few things that I felt may need some tweaks but, during my playtesting, Dustin and I conversed quite a lot and I am sure, where he feels it is appropriate, he will make any modifications necessary to improve the game.  Its only early stages yet and I can confidently say after talking to him that Dustin is very open to receiving suggestions and applying them where he feels it makes sense without compromising his vision.

The Build Up:

In 1994 I purchased my first computer.  It was a powerful beast of a machine.  A 486 cobbled together from parts hand picked by the guy that owned the local PC store.  This was back in the day when people with a passion for computers could make a decent living running their own “walk in” computer store.  It ran the latest and greatest operating system; MS Dos 6.21.  I purchased it primarily for professional reasons but I soon discovered (or maybe it was a hidden secret objective)…….there were also games.

One of, if not the, first games I purchased for that technological marvel was a ‘point and click’ Lucasfilm Studios game called Maniac Mansion.  This was followed by Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, and a host of others.

I loved that game.  I loved all of them but I particularly loved Maniac Mansion.  It was filled with goofy kid characters, each with their own distinct personalities a ‘la The Goonies.  Lots of humor, challenging (at the time) puzzles, exploration, and all in all a good time.  It’s sequel, Day of the Tentacle, was loved almost as much by me as well.  Of course, both games are seriously dated now.   I tried playing DOTT on an iPad recently and, while a faithful adaptation/port, it just didn’t do it for me like it did back in the day.  But still, great memories of fun, exploration, and laughs……kind of like Heroquest I guess.

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The first promo pic for The Ghosts Betwixt

Anyway, fast forward 20+ years and one day, in the Adventure and Dungeon Crawl Board Games Facebook group, I came across a post sharing the first promo image for a game and asking for feedback.

The art style immediately brought back fond memories of Maniac Mansion.  Immediately.  The house, the “mess”, the kids.  It definitely caught my attention.

This visual trip down the alleyways of nostalgia resulted in the following exchange:

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What???  Similarities???  Well, of course, saying that there are similarities with something so close to my heart immediately piqued my interest.  I’ve been watching the game’s development ever since, eagerly awaiting to see what happens when it comes to Kickstarter, which apparently, is an event that isn’t too far away.  Over the last 12 months or so I’ve watched Dustin’s posts and we have, on occasion, chatted about his game.

Recently Dustin sent me a preview/prototype copy of the game asking for feedback.  I decided to write this.  He didn’t ask me to write this.  He was just looking for playtest feedback.  But, I enjoy writing about stuff so figured this would be a good reason to get back into it after letting it slide for so long.

Not Your Grandmas Crawler…

When I opened the box I was impressed with the components; Especially for a prototype.

IMG_0392The artwork is great.  The use of standees I really like.  While I do love my minis, I am not at all averse to standees either.  I feel that good standees can really add to a game as they are basically pre-painted characters.  The tiles were solid.  The cards were of good quality.  Nice tokens and so on.

When looking at the components though you don’t really get a good sense of what this game is all about.  Yeah, they’re nice.  But it does look like any standard crawler albeit in a unique setting (not monsters or fantasy…..more…..well Maniac Mansion-ish to be honest).

Silly me.  This isn’t your standard crawler.  Oh sure, it has features that you will find in most good dungeon crawlers; Loot, exploration, leveling, etc.  But instead of the oft-repeated move, fight, loot, level, process that gets a little blah sometimes, this (and I checked with Dustin – he’s ok with me describing it as such) cuts away some of the more boring stuff and primarily focuses on tactical combat (and a good story); And it delivers that in droves.

I was expecting something “samey”.  Pretty soon I realized that this game is different.  Because of my assumptions, I actually found I had to restart the mission a few times.  Those assumptions led me to skim the rules and play incorrectly.  But once I looked deeper and got my head around what was going on….what the game was meant to be……it was a very good experience and very different from what generally see in a dungeon crawler.

What I like:

Like I said, I am not going to get into any issues I ran into.  That’s not why I write.  I like to write for people that are interested in something, may be on the fence about it, and want to hear from other people that do like it.  There are plenty of people that take fully critical views of things and they do it well.  It’s good to have that info.  That’s not my thing though.

But….while I will generally only write positive things they will always be honest.  I won’t say I like something if I don’t.

The Ghosts Betwixt has quite a few things about it that I really do like a lot.  I’m not going to get into the full rules.  For one thing they’re not finished but more importantly, I don’t want to bog things down with explanations of them.  Besides, they may completely change at some point invalidating what I say.  With that being said though, I will need to explain some things because it is those that make this unique.

Cutting out the fluff.  Moving around in dungeon crawlers can sometimes get boring.  You’ve cleared a tile of monsters but you still have to cross the entire tile to get to the other side.  In games like Darklight: Memento Mori this can actually be hazardous as each round you have an event (in DMM it is the darkness roll) that can create a negative for your party.  For Darklight that works……it’s all part of that game.  In other games though you have to move your characters across the map only to find that one person gets to the door and either has to wait for one or two turns while the others to catch up, or opens the door only to create a less than optimal combat situation because no other party members are close by and ‘there be monsters’ on the other side (Gloomhaven is one that comes to mind that can have this issue).

The Ghosts Betwixt cuts out all that stuff.  Once you’ve killed everything on the tile you do things like item pickups, calculate XP, etc……but then you can just move everyone to the next door.  No counting spaces, no waiting, no events at the end of every turn as you slog your way across the map.  Just pick up and position your characters wherever you want on that tile and, as long as at least one character is adjacent to it, open the door.  With the door open you then draw the next map token, place the map tile that the token indicates, and spawn enemies, traps, items, etc.  Then move straight into combat.

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I really enjoyed that.  It may seem like a very simple thing but eliminating pointless actions from a game (needing to move across a tile) is something that I really appreciate.  This made the game all about the combat.  Much more than I expected.

But don’t think it’s just regular combat either.

More Fluff Cuts:  No engagement rule.  Period.  Doesn’t matter if you are adjacent to an enemy.  You can move away.  One less fiddly thing to think about.  I like that.   BIIIIIGGGG but though.  That also means that enemies can move away from adjacent heroes.  Therefore heroes cannot lock down monsters…….and because of targeting (explained next) that can present a real challenge.

Things are starting to get interesting……

Targeting:  Once the door is open you spawn enemies on the tile (if you pulled a monster token for the room that is – sometimes you may not).  Enemies are placed on the new tile based on the result of die rolls.  Once the enemies are placed then each is assigned a random “target” token.  The target tokens are icons for the party characters.  There is more than one token for each character. Once a target token is assigned to a monster/enemy then that monster/enemy will solely focus on attacking that family member.

So……now we’ve got enemies in the room who are focusing on specific party members.  AND…….there’s no engagement rule……..which means I can’t tie a monster up by engaging it and that monster will continually try to get to one character.

This can create some really difficult situations for individual party members.  Once you open a room, if you spawn multiple monsters, there is a chance that you can pull multiple target tokens all belonging to the same character; Meaning that a few, or all, of the enemies in the room are going to focus on one person.

Things are getting more interesting now.

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The “On the Way” Rule:  This is one of my favorites.  A monster focuses on its target once a target is assigned.  That family member is the only thing that monster is thinking about killing.

IF a monster can move and attack its target (or just attack without the move) then it will.  As long as it can hit its target at the end of its turn, a monster will completely ignore anyone else that it can attack; Even if another family member is closer in range or even if that other family member becomes temporarily adjacent to the monster as the monster moves towards its target (i.e. the monster walks past it).  These monsters are a pretty aggressive and disciplined bunch!

However, if the monster cannot move and attack its target (i.e. its target is just too far away) then it will move towards its target.  In this situation, because the monster CAN’T hit its target at the end of its turn, the monster WILL attack anyone that it can “on the way”.

This makes things even more interesting because you now have to start thinking about total party placement on the board.  Do you really want to end your turn within range of the monster that has you as its target?  If you move your character to attack a monster then are you going to be in the path of a different monster that is going to move, but which isn’t going to get within range of its target by the end of its turn, and will, therefore, attack you “on the way”.

Conversely, is it ok to put yourself in the path of the monster because it CAN reach its target when it activates and will, therefore, ignore you?

No engagement.  Targeting.   The “On The Way” rule.  Yeah…..now things are getting tactical.

No Bottlenecking:  Because of the aforementioned you cannot bottleneck (in most cases – 2 square wide hallways being the exception). Bottlenecking (sometimes called Kiting) is the tactic of blocking a narrow path, i.e. a doorway, with your “tanks” and then just raining hits down on your enemy because they cannot get through that part of the map.

That’s not happening in TGB.  If you think you’re going to easily clear a room by putting your melee characters in the two spaces that form the doorway and then putting your ranged characters behind them….think again.  Diagonal movement is acceptable.  There are no engagement rules.  Monsters focus on their targets.  To that end, a monster is just going to step around you to get to their target.

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In this picture, the monster with #1 on its base has the family member with the red base (Maddox) as its target.  It doesn’t care that Bill and Joan are in the doorway.  It’s just going to step diagonally across to deliver a can of whoop ass on Maddox.

Tough (Very Tough) Action Choices:  Like most crawlers, you get a limited amount of actions for your hero.  In TGB there are some standard choices….move, attack, use an item, use a skill, etc.  But there is one more that has shades of Eldritch Horrors’ focus token mechanic.  As an action, you can adopt a stance – offensive or defensive.   Either one.   Adopting a stance gives you a boost – defensive or offensive as appropriate.   You must take the stance action as a second action – so you can’t boost your attack and then attack.  You take the stance getting ready for what’s to come.

The thing is……they don’t stack and if you don’t use the boost by the end of your next turn you lose it.  Now couple that with the fact that you only have two actions to take and add to the mix no engagement, targeting, and the “on the way” rule, and you’ve got even harder decisions to make.

The whole “use it or lose it” thing really adds a twist.  Do I move and boost my defense for the inevitable attack that would hit me next turn in order to place myself in a good position on my next turn?  I can attack this monster next to me but I didn’t take an offensive stance last turn so I don’t get a boost (stances MUST be your second action of your turn – you can’t take a stance and then attack).  Do you move the character that took a defensive stance last turn (and has a defensive boost) to attack a monster because if you do you lose the defensive bonus because you lose all bonuses at the end of your turn……or do you save that characters turn until after she is hit in order to use the boost and not waste it?

Yeah……this game is way,  way, deeper than it first appears.

Blindside Rule:  I like it when dungeon crawlers consider facing.  TGB does.  You get a bonus for attacking a monster from behind.  No huge explanation here.  It just makes things again more tactical as you want to get behind enemies if you can do it.  It’s hard enough to hit.  You need every advantage you can.  But it’s not a simple thing to do.  I just mentioned the stances.  Those are really worthwhile taking as an action.  Do you forego a stance in order to step around a monster, get behind it, and get an attack bonus?

Dang! More tactical decisions.

No Turn Order:  This speaks for itself.  I don’t mind party member turn order when it is tied to initiative and that initiative level is assigned to the characters for thematic reasons.  For example – ninja girl has super sensitive reflexes and therefore has a high initiative level.  I really, really, do not like it though when a game has “then the player on the left takes their turn”.  It pulls me out of the game.  It breaks the immersion into the story.  It makes no sense and does nothing but serve to irritate me.  Usually, I actually house rule and ignore turn order if it doesn’t fit the theme for me.

TGB doesn’t have a turn order.  You pick who takes a turn and when.  You analyze the situation on the tile (and you DO need to analyze what’s going on) and then make turn choices based on what you think is best.  Plain and simple…..that’s a win for me.

The Theme:  It’s refreshing to play a game outside of the stock fantasy trope (even though I still love those).  Not just the story though but everything that came with the preview edition….the items, the characters, the monsters, the story passages.  It all comes together really well and gives a good feel for the environment and the story that is playing out.

Overall

I enjoyed what I played of TGB.  I enjoyed it a lot.  It took me a while to wrap my head around what the game was about.  That was my fault though.  My bad for making assumptions.  At first, I thought it was going to be pretty standard.  I didn’t expect it to be so focused on tactical combat.  Once I figured out where the game was coming from though I found it to be very engaging.  By the end of the mission, I found that I wanted more.

This is a tactically deep, combat-focused, dungeon crawler.

I played it solo.  As a result, I found that one mission was enough for a night (although I played 1/2 the mission 3 times to get the rules right and then the full mission twice over the course of a week).  I think if I had the complete game, one mission would be enough for a night though.  It’s work.  Despite the artwork and lightness of the themes characters its not a light game at all.  Dice selection, tactical action planning, and character placement, etc.  Its good work….but work.  As a solo game you are (pleasantly) taxed by the end of it.  However…..even though one mission a night would be enough for me I would gladly play the next mission the following night.

I do think that the game would shine as a multiplayer experience; Even though there is no reason you cannot play it solo.  I just think that the interaction with others as you collectively decide who acts when, and why, would really add another layer.   Multiplayer would also share the burden of selecting die for attack pools, etc, between players.  This isn’t a horrible experience……but only having to deal with selecting the die for one character wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

But…..I’ve got no friends so I can’t speak to it being even more fun in a group 🙂

I would say definitely take a look at The Ghosts Betwixt when it hits Kickstarter.

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